As we roared uphill on a twisty, two-lane road outside Los Angeles, Sheri Shapiro interrupted the conversation in Ford Motor's new Escape Hybrid sport utility to point out a series of mountain bikers. The bikers wore blue shirts with individual words printed on the backs, so that driving past them yielded a Burma Shave-style roadside advertisement: "Thanks-for-the-clean-air-Ford-Escape-Hybrid."
"Sorry. I wanted to make sure you noticed," said Shapiro, the Escape Hybrid's marketing manager. "I had to pay for those bikers."
America's first gas-electric hybrid — for which print advertisements are already running elsewhere — has earned a little publicity. The bikers, who were paid to be seen by automotive journalists on the hybrid's first test drive, addressed what may be the chief virtue of the new SUV, which will come out in the late summer: It produces less than 1 pound of smog-forming pollutants for every 15,000 miles you drive it.
To give you an idea of how dramatic that difference is from non-hybrid vehicles, Terry Newell of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Transportation and Air Quality says the average for all light trucks is 105 pounds of smog-forming pollutants for every 15,000 miles. For passenger cars, the average is 67 pounds.
Right now, hybrids are the hottest topic in American motoring. People are curious about how they benefit the environment, as well as their own budget for fuel. On the Escape Hybrid test drive, a man driving a BMW 3 Series asked us to roll down our window and posed a question we almost always hear when testing futuristic-looking vehicles: "Is that one of those new hybrids?"
Ford is wise to make the first U.S. hybrid an SUV, the most American of vehicles, for several reasons:
- Based on the regular Escape SUV, the Escape Hybrid has the looks and capabilities of a normal car, thus allowing Ford to sidestep the science-project styling that cut sales of Honda Motor's Insight hybrid coupe in half last year. The Insight was one of the first hybrids sold in the U.S., but Americans are buying newer, more conventionally styled hybrids in much larger numbers.
- Improving the regular Escape's city fuel economy by 75 percent seems more impressive, and more relevant to the average American customer, than putting out a new, standalone hybrid commuter car that gets 55 mpg. Ford estimates that the Escape Hybrid will get 35/30 city/highway mpg (the city figure is higher than the highway figure, which is unusual, because the engine cuts out during deceleration and at a stop).
- Toyota Motor, which currently is the only manufacturer beside Honda to sell hybrids in America, is about to release a hybrid SUV of its own, a hybrid treatment of the Lexus RX 330 called the RX 400h. With 92,366 unit sales in the U.S. last year, the regular RX is the backbone of Lexus. It's a hot vehicle whose sales continue to increase, and its hybrid derivative is going to be a huge hit, for which other automakers need to prepare competition.
- Sport utility buyers have the same desire to improve their fuel economy as buyers of compact cars. This may be hard to believe, but owners of General Motors' Hummer vehicles say that their number one complaint about the trucks is bad fuel economy. But...
- Rising gas prices don't seem to be making American drivers willing to compromise. Consumers are not buying less gas as oil prices dance near the $40 per barrel mark, challenging GM's longstanding theory that the only way to lower fuel consumption is to raise the price of gas. Drivers don't seem willing to give up space, either. Sport utilities are the favorite American vehicles because Americans value cargo utility above all other automotive priorities. If Americans will continue to demand gas-guzzling SUVs, a hybrid SUV with dramatic fuel-consumption benefits would seem tailored to their wishes.
With all of these conditions in place, the Escape Hybrid should be a hit — except that we have no idea how much it will cost. Ford is planning to announce pricing about a month before the vehicle goes on sale (the base price of the regular Escape is $19,300, $1,210 less than the base price of a Toyota Prius hybrid sedan). If Ford keeps the Escape Hybrid under $25,000, it will sell like hotcakes. If they price it closer to $30,000, they may find it to be less popular than they expect. In either event, Ford is planning for initial demand of the Escape Hybrid to far outstrip supply, according to Marty Collins, Ford's general marketing manager.
Ford's optimism about the Escape Hybrid's potential appeal comes, in part, from the fact that 500,000 people have visited a Web site the company has set up to provide information about hybrids. Ford has not decided on an annual sales target for the Escape Hybrid, but it estimates the goal will be between 15,000 and 25,000 units annually. The regular Escape saw 167,678 American unit sales last year, but a 15,000- to 25,000-unit target sounds more appropriate for a hybrid. Toyota's Prius saw 24,627 sales in the U.S. last year
As it readies the Escape Hybrid for sale, Ford is working to appear more environmentally responsible. It has installed 10.4 acres of purifying plants on the roof of its truck factory in Dearborn, a suburb that abuts Detroit and houses Ford's headquarters. The plants insulate the building and perform other functions, such as improving water runoff. In terms of building greener cars, Ford is planning the 2007 Mercury Mariner Hybrid (the regular Mariner is a new companion to the regular Escape) and a hybrid midsize sedan that will follow it. A hydrogen-powered Ford Focus is under development as well.
One sign that the world is improving is that hybrid vehicles such as the Escape don't feel like a chore, or as if you're driving them because you would feel more guilty if you bought a 12-cylinder Mercedes from DaimlerChrysler. Hybrids are lots of fun to drive. One particularly memorable feature of the Los Angeles press drive was the "Fuel Economy Challenge," in which automotive journalists who ordinarily prefer to drive over 100 mph on a track could be seen attempting to maximize their mileage by puttering around Culver City at 15 mph, braking and accelerating as gently as possible and enthusiastically checking their average fuel economy readouts.
Don't drive the hybrid like this all the time; you would save more money by buying a less fuel-efficient, entry-level non-hybrid than a fuel-efficient hybrid, because the high-tech cars cost more and their lower fueling costs don't make up for the difference.
What the "Fuel Economy Challenge" does suggest is that, in addition to the socially conscious and the technologically savvy, motoring enthusiasts are also getting on board with hybrids. Take a look at why the first such offering from an American company is so interesting.
To see a slide show, click here.